When, finally, emerging from the airport terminal at Marrakech it takes a little while for it to dawn in one’s mind that those ghostly apparitions on the distant horizon are not clouds but are, in fact, snow-covered mountains. The Atlas is a range of mountains of northwestern Africa some 2500km wide through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia raising to nearly 14,000 feet. These mountains largely separate the mediterranean part of Africa and the Sahara desert. These mountains are also the main home of the native tribe of northern africa, the Berbers.
For a reasonable fee it is possible for groups to hire guide driven 4×4 vehicle tours into the Atlas Mountains. The group I was with hired two such vehicles. This small journey took place on Christmas Day in 2011. This was a day excursion, on a short visit to Marrakech, in Morocco, organised by a package holiday company.
Our convoy travelled roughly east of Marrakech and into the Atlas Mountains. From time to time our driver and guide would pull over to allow us to take in the landscape and stretch our legs. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a world very different to our own. Every day life in this extraordinary part of the world takes place at an altitude that is higher than Ben Nevis.
After crashing along a winding rough road we duly arrived in the Ourika valley. Here we experienced a pleasant hour in a re-creation of a traditional Berber house, complete with souvenir shop, for mint tea, bread and honey. Mint tea is common place in Morocco. For me, mint tea did take a little getting used to. But, having got used to it, I really like it. Usually, it is served in small glass cups, about the size of an espresso cup, in a holder with a handle. The cup contains mint leaves and hot water. Both the cups and packets of mint leaves are readily available. This particular snack also came with bread and honey. It was very nice sitting here, in front of the fire, with our hosts enjoying some time out. Then came the visit which provides the main subject of this blog. A short walking distance further up the road we were taken into a building alongside the highway. On one side of this large airy room was a group of women sitting around a low table, much as we had been doing in the above image, appearing to be enjoying a break of some kind. On the other side was a small neatly arranged display area showing the various traditional paraphernalia used to extract oil from the Argan nut, the fruit of the Argan tree. We were in one of the outlets of the Tiguemine cooperative which provides employment and support to Moroccan women who have lost their husbands.
Here a lady gave us a short talk on the subject of the cultivation of the argan tree, and the production of the oil. If your interested to know more about the co-operative and how the oil is produced the link below will take you to a very good page on the subject.
For most, I think, one of the novelties of this oil is the tree itself, or, to be more precise, the goats that live in them. The trees grow in the south-western part of Morocco. The tree is also found in Tunisia (and in other parts of the world). The local goat population climb up in to the trees and graze on the leaves. If you search you tube you can find a number of video’s of this. It’s quite something to see, check it out.
Ascending some stairs to the back and outside of the building leads to a very smart and well organised display room and shop. This also provides an opportunity to sample some of the product. The shop has an impressive range of products neatly split between culinary and beauty products (argan oil is very good for the skin). This oil can also be used as a culinary oil. We were allowed to taste various products, including the oil by dipping a little bread into a small bowl. If you want an idea of what Argan oil tastes like, well, to me, it is very similar to hazelnut oil. Maybe a little stronger. I imagine a lot goes a long way.
Steamed Salmon Fillets with an Argan Oil and Lemon vinaigrette
To try out this oil I decided to make something that would attempt to show off the flavour characteristics of this oil. If you can’t get Argan oil then hazelnut oil is a good substitution. But do try to get the real thing if you can.
Simply arrange the fillets skin side up on an upturned bowel with plenty of lemon and parsley. Place this on top of a wok steaming rack with a good rolling boil of plain water, cover with a lid and steam for as long as it takes.
In the meantime, make up a simple vinaigrette using the oil, lemon juice, parsley and a teeny tiny amount of salt.
If you should find that it’s too sharp and strong for you, a little sugar will help or dilute with some groundnut oil or light olive oil (NOT virgin) but be very careful not to overdo it. Just as an aside, I have Gordon Ramsay video on my shelves in which he cuts down his lemon vinaigrettes with plain water to reduce the harshness. Argan oil is quite powerful so test as you go along. Toss into a salad, drizzle over the fillets and serve.
This worked well enough. In my view, I think what we have here a great ‘undiscovered’ product in a world where the increasingly overwhelming communications and information revolution makes these things ever harder to find. I hope that before too long the world of media gastronomy will discover this oil and the good work of the Tiguemine cooperative.
Finally, you know, I think this oil could, potentially, make an interesting and less harsh substitution for sesame seed oil in Asian cooking. I must try that out one day.